Scientist behind COVID-19 mRNA vaccine says his team’s next target is cancer

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Scientist behind COVID-19 mRNA vaccine says his team's next target is cancer


The scientist who won the race to deliver the first widely used coronavirus vaccine says people can rest assured the vaccines are safe and that the technology behind it will soon be used to fight another global scourge: cancer.
Ozlem Tureci, who founded German company BioNTech with her husband, Ugur Sahin, was working on a way to harness the body’s immune system to fight tumors when they learned last year that an unknown virus was infecting people in China.

Over breakfast, the couple decided to apply the technology they had been researching for two decades to the new threat.

Britain cleared BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine for use in December, followed a week later by Canada. Dozens of other countries, including the United States, have followed suit and tens of millions of people around the world have since received the vaccine developed in collaboration with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

“It pays to make bold decisions and have confidence that if you have an amazing team, you will be able to resolve any issues and obstacles that come your way in real time,” Tureci told the Associated Press in an interview.

Among the biggest challenges for the small Mainz-based company was how to conduct large-scale clinical trials in different regions and how to scale up the manufacturing process to meet global demand.

Along with Pfizer, the company tapped Fosun Pharma in China “to get assets, capabilities and a geographic footprint on board, which we didn’t have,” Tureci said.

Cooperation and collaboration

Among the lessons she and her colleagues learned was “the importance of international cooperation and collaboration”.

Tureci, who was born in Germany to Turkish immigrants, said the company contacted medical oversight bodies early on, to make sure the new type of vaccine would pass rigorous scrutiny from regulators.

“The drug or vaccine approval process is one where many questions are asked, many experts are involved, and there is external peer review of all the data and scientific discourse,” said she declared.

Amid fear in Europe this week over the coronavirus vaccine made by Anglo-Swedish rival AstraZeneca, Tureci dismissed the idea that all corners were cut by those running to develop a vaccine.

“There’s a very rigid process in place and the process doesn’t stop after a vaccine is approved,” she said. “In fact, this is now continuing all over the world, where regulators have used reporting systems to track and assess any observations made with our vaccines or others. ”

Tureci and her colleagues have all received the BioNTech vaccine themselves, she told the AP. “Yes, we have been vaccinated. ”

Aim to develop a new tool to fight cancer

As BioNTech’s profile grew during the pandemic, its value also increased, adding much-needed funds that the company can use to further its original goal of developing a new tool against cancer.

The vaccine made by BioNTech-Pfizer and its US rival Moderna uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, to deliver instructions to the human body to make proteins that trigger it to attack a specific virus. The same principle can be applied to get the immune system to attack tumors.

“We have several different mRNA-based cancer vaccines,” Tureci said.

Asked when such therapy might be available, Tureci said, “It’s very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we expect that in just a few years we will also have our vaccines. [against] cancer in a place where we can offer it to people. ”

Workers pack boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as they are ready to be shipped to Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., In December. The vaccine was the first to be approved for use in Canada and the United States (Morry Cash / AFP / Getty Images)

For now, Tureci and Sahin are trying to ensure that vaccines ordered by governments are delivered and that vaccines respond effectively to any further mutations in the virus.

The couple were taking time off their schedule on Friday to receive Germany’s highest honor, the Order of Merit, from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a scientist by training, was to attend the ceremony.

“It is indeed an honor,” Tureci said of the award. “My husband and I are touched. ”

But she insisted that developing the vaccine was the work of many.

“This is the effort of many, our team at BioNTech, all the partners involved, as well as governments, regulatory authorities, who have worked together with a sense of urgency,” he said. she declared. “The way we see it is an acknowledgment of this effort and also a celebration of science. ”

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